For decades after their dynastic, Stanley-Cup-championship-winning run of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the New York Islanders were NHL roadkill – an organization that missed the playoffs in 16 of 23 seasons, and that had won a playoff round just once in that span.
The team became a laughingstock, and a combination of bad luck and poor management had formerly proud Isles fans reeling. However, in the past three seasons, the Islanders have shook off that loser label and given Long Islanders something to take pride in. They made it to the second round of the post-season in each of those three years, and, two years ago, they pushed their way to the Conference Final before falling to the eventual Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
While battling in a difficult division in 2021, the Isles again earned a playoff spot and won their first-round showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins, then lost again to Tampa Bay.
But the most crucial thing they did was prove the previous two years were no fluke, and that the days of disregarding the Islanders were at an end. And now, as they prepare to begin the 2021-22 campaign, the Isles no longer are considered an underdog.
If their health holds up, they’re going to be one of the favorites to win the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, and nothing less than a return trip to the Eastern Final will suffice.
For a team that has almost always been the hunter, the Islanders now are the hunted. And despite the accompanying pressure that always comes along with being a top dog, that change in status is a great thing for them.
The turnabout in fortunes may have happened at the precise time veteran NHL GM Lou Lamoriello took over the Isles’ reins and he hired Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz away from the Washington Capitals, but the Islanders’ improvement hasn’t all been about management. There was a core of talent – mainly, forwards Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Casey Czikas and Cal Clutterbuck – Lamoriello chose to build around. The temptation for many GMs might have been to reset the roster entirely and start from the ground up, but Lamoriello recognized it was possible to give the group a new structure and an opportunity for full buy-in under a new bench boss. So he moved out some veterans and allowed Isles prospects the opportunity to earn prominent jobs. And young players such as forwards Mat Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier and defensemen Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock rewarded Lamoriello, rounding out into significant NHL talents.
Now, the Islanders have serious depth, and their success has allowed Lamoriello to go out and make veteran additions to augment his core. He traded for winger Kyle Palmieri last season, then re-signed him to a four-year, $20-million contract this summer; he signed two marquee NHL names – blueliner Zdeno Chara and winger Zach Parise – to unrestricted free agent contracts. None of the three veterans are in their prime, but each of them makes the Isles a more dangerous squad.
Couple their on-ice gains with the building of a new arena, and it really does feel like the Islanders have entered into a new and better era. Under Trotz’s stewardship, they had the NHL’s second-best defense last season (128 goals-against); only the Vegas Golden Knights (124 GA) allowed fewer goals scored on them. They had the sixth-best penalty kill in the game (83.7 percent efficiency). In 28 home games last year, they lost in regulation only four times, and won 21 times. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche won more often at home, and even then, the Pens and Avs had just one more victory in their own building than did the Isles. The metrics made it clear: this was not a team to be taken lightly anymore.
This season, the Metro Division promises to be a slugfest. All but one of its eight teams could, under the right circumstances, make the playoffs this year. That means there’s going to be three teams – maybe the Philadelphia Flyers; maybe the New Jersey Devils; perhaps the Penguins or the New York Rangers or Washington Capitals – that finish the season on the outside of the playoff picture. But the Isles shouldn’t be one of them. They should challenge for the division title, and be a team nobody wants to face in the first round (or any round, for that matter) of the post-season. They’ve earned the hype with hard work the past three years. Now they have to live up to it.
If that expectation feels a tad strange to Isles fans accustomed to letdowns, that’s OK. It’s good to set the bar as high as you can. But the Islanders can’t sneak up and surprise opponents anymore. The scouting report on them is out in the open, and it’s now on Trotz, Lamoriello and Isles players to defy their doubters and generate another glory era.